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Moore's better blues (Con't)

Does it bother you when the occasional critic says, "Lorrie Moore's too funny for her own good"?

I don't know, there is that prejudice against humor as somehow mucking up the seriousness of your endeavor. I don't really quite get that. I don't think it's a very sympathetic opinion. But whatever, everybody's entitled to it. I do feel that when you look out into the world, the world is funny. And people are funny. And that people always try to make each other laugh. I've never been to a dinner party where everyone at the dinner table didn't say something funny. If you're going to ignore that, what are you doing? You're just saying that part of the world, and that part of human nature, and that particular texture and vein that runs through human discourse, doesn't exist. And of course it exists.

Do you think humor is underrated as a literary virtue?

Oh, I don't know. It's certainly undervalued, obviously, by the people you've [just mentioned]. Do I think it's undervalued by readers? Not really. People are so eager for it.

Is it a burden writing such funny work, in the sense that people expect you to be witty 24 hours a day?

Or I have to be depressed. You know, I'm just a very boring, not very funny person in person. I don't feel pressured to be otherwise.

Are you as quick with smart comebacks as your characters often are -- unlike most of us, who think of the perfect retort a week later?

Most of the responses you're referring to, though, are not these sort of elegant, clever quips. Most of them come out of some sense of estrangement and awkwardness.

I would agree, but they're still very apt.

But it's not the thing that you would say if you could do it over again, I don't think. I think those remarks usually embody the awkwardness and discomfort of the situation and the character instead of smoothing it over and rescuing the character -- it actually kind of buries them further, I think. So, I don't think these are really things that you would say in a perfect world.

Is it hard to be funny on the page? Is it something you labor over?

The humor is more the texture of the situation and the texture of the conversation. Which is not to say it's not deeply tied to the heart of the story. Because it is. But the things that are harder to do are the sadder things. It's harder to get that. Everything's hard. But I am a sucker for silliness sometimes. And when someone says something silly to me, I find it wildly funny. So I'm often given to having my characters say completely silly things and I think this is wonderful. So I have to be careful, because silliness is another thing you have to worry about -- a little goes a long way.

That humor, that silliness, is certainly tied to the darker elements in the stories. There's that line in one of the stories about "flipping death the bird." Is humor one of the ways the characters in the stories deal with difficult situations?

That is a classic theme in fiction -- that humor is used to sort of fend off the nightmarish facts. And, of course, that's true. That is at the center of almost all those stories. People being funny with each other is also a kind of generosity between people. And I'm interested in that, those little moments of generosity, where someone really does want to make someone laugh. Of course laugh, vis--vis this horrible stuff that is out there in the world that we all have to deal with. But those moments where we help each other out are interesting to me. And they're theatrical. And some of them are possessed of great silliness, but they are connected to an impulse that is interesting to me. So, it's also not just the awkwardness that creates the humor, but sometimes it's generosity.

Speaking of awkwardness, two things that are almost always somewhat hellish in these stories are car trips and holidays. There's a lot of both. What is it about them that resonates for you?

Well, it's the obvious -- people are thrown together in close proximity when in fact they don't ordinarily live their lives that way. And so you throw these people together and all the extremes of their character really start to emerge. And in a short period of time. Because the proximity, or the propinquity, is too intense. And everybody knows that feeling of going home for the holidays, the family's all together and these old grievances emerge so fast. Usually it's the second day, but sometimes it's the first.

When you start out writing about these car trips and holidays, do you know that these are going to be short stories instead of novels?

Yeah, all of these stories began as short stories. A novel's a different project entirely. Each of these began as a short story. I wasn't always sure how long the story would be -- some of them turned out to be longer or shorter than I originally would have guessed. But they all were definitely short stories from the beginning.

I read somewhere that you're maybe working on a novel now?

I am. "Maybe's" the key word there. I'm trying. I'm taking notes mostly and I've done a couple of pages. It's really at the beginning.

Do you have a preference? Do you find that one comes more naturally than the other? Do you try to alternate?

There has, in fact, been a kind of de facto alternation between the two that was not by design. That's just the natural way things came. I would, of course, say that I am primarily a short story writer -- I have more experience with short stories. I've written so many more of them than I have written novels. But I will also add, now is not the time for me to say I'm not a novelist since I'm working on a novel. So I don't want to lose faith now. I would like to see myself as both.

Some observers have called you a "natural" short story writer, as if that was somehow your truer calling. Does that ever bother you?

No. Maybe I should be bothered. I try not to get bothered by anything that's said like that. People have said it right to my face about my two novels, "Oh, those are novels?" And that doesn't even bother me. So I must have a thick skin about that. My first novel, obviously, was a short novel with some stories attached to it. I was experimenting with form, which invited a lot of criticism. And then my second novel, which I had intended to be 2,000 pages long, turned out to be only 147, much to my surprise. So it would be natural for someone to say, "Oh, the short story is her natural form." But I'm working on a novel now.

You grew up in Glens Falls, New York. Was your family bookish?

Yes. They were readers. My father was the child of academics and was probably destined to become an academic himself but vetoed that idea. Bailed, dropped out of graduate school and just went to work for an insurance company. But the house was full of books and music and all of that. And my mother has always been a reader. Both of them have been -- they read nonfiction more than fiction. They weren't ever big fiction readers, and they also didn't read trash. They never were reading thrillers and romances; they were always serious readers, but they tended to read nonfiction, as I think most readers in the world do.

Were they encouraging about your writing?

They were admirably neutral. Which, when you have a child who says, "You know, I'm writing some short stories and I want to go to graduate school to continue this habit of writing short stories," you have to be a little worried, I suppose. They were neither particularly encouraging, because it's a worrisome decision, but they were never discouraging. They were just witnesses. And in many ways, after I got started, they were very pleased for me and were nice about it.

What did winning that Seventeen magazine contest mean to you?

Well, I don't know. I got 500 dollars -- I just thought I was rich. I thought I'd never get a rejection ever in my life. It was the first time I'd ever sent anything out.

They didn't care that you were 19 and not 17 at the time?

No, you can be actually 21, I guess -- even 21-year-olds have won this. And then I proceeded to send Seventeen magazine everything I ever wrote. They couldn't get rid of me. I was like a stalker. I sent them everything, and of course they didn't want anything more from me. I accumulated some rejections, then I got to some normal place where I thought I should think of something else to do for a living. So there was a big high and then kind of an adjustment -- a "correction," as stock market people say.

I know you lived briefly in Manhattan. Do you ever think of packing up and moving back?

No, not really. But I dream about it. I think about it as a kind of fantasy all the time.

Has having had a child made it more difficult to find time to write?

Oh yes.

How do you manage now?

I don't know -- it's a struggle, it's a daily struggle. I haven't figured it out completely yet. Just when you think you have it, your child becomes a completely different sort of person and needs different things. So it's hard. Initially, when I had a baby, and he took naps, I was pretty good at seizing that hour or two that he was napping, but now things have gotten kind of ... I don't know. So we'll see. You have to be very careful with your time, you have to not waste it. I can't tolerate now going to a movie that's bad. This is two hours of babysitting time, and I'm watching a bad movie? I get too upset. Whereas I used to go to anything, I didn't care. A bad movie, who cared? But now, I'm just tense about things, about time. There is also the issue where, when you have a child, this is the biggest love of your life. Perhaps when you were a writer and not a mother, just a writer, writing was the biggest love of your life. So now you have someone who's competing for your emotional center ... and winning. Do you have children?

I do, a 1-year-old.

So you know this.

Yeah, not as many movies, not as much reading ...

But meanwhile, you're madly in love. Exhausted, but madly in love, the way being madly in love exhausts you. It does. Two lovers in a romance stay up all night and don't get any sleep, too. It's the same idea, having a baby.

It seems like music has always played a large role in your fiction. Your characters are very in touch with that. How important is that to you personally?

I'm surrounded by music, I always was when I was growing up and continue to be. And I love music. And when I imagine a fictional world, I imagine there's music in it for those people too.

Does it play a role in your writing?

I never play music when I'm writing -- it would be too distracting. I'm too interested in music to have it be playing while I'm writing. On the other hand, there are always effects and emotions and internal states of ecstasy that you feel with music that in some way you're hoping to re-create in prose. So music is an inspiration and an idea.

Do you keep current with music?

Unfortunately, I don't. But I have students who keep me informed and tell me about all these various rock bands I've never heard of. But you know, Madison right now is home to the band Garbage ...

They're from Madison?

See, yeah.

I thought they were British.

No, Shirley, is that her name, Shirley Manson? She's Scottish, but she lives in Madison now and all the other people in the band are native Madisonians. That's as cool as I get.

There's a question that one of the characters gets asked in "Birds of America": If there was a gun to your head, what song would you sing?

If there was a gun to my head? I wouldn't be able to sing at all.

Dwight Garner is senior books editor for Salon Magazine.

All who wander are not lost. Travel with a passion with Salon Magazine's Wanderlust.

Related stories:

  • Salon review of 'Birds of America' - October 2, 1998
  • Salon review: The first and last steps of heroic exploration - December 3, 1998
  • Salon review: 'Hip Hop America' is just the notes - November 23, 1998

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